Richard Henry Lee
October 01, 1787
The Virginian Antifederalist Richard Henry Lee informs George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, that absence of a Bill of Rights in the proposed Constitution is troublesome and imprudent: “the most express declarations and reservations are necessary to protect the just rights and liberty of Mankind from the silent powerful and ever active conspiracy of those who govern.”
I have waited until now to answer your favor of Septr. 18th from Philadelphia, that I might inform you how the Convention plan of Government was entertained by Congress. Your prediction of what would happen in Congress was exactly verified. It was with us, as with you, this or nothing; & this urged with a most extreme intemperance. The greatness of the powers given, & the multitude of Places to be created, produces a coalition of Monarchy men, Military Men, Aristocrats, and Drones whose noise, imprudence & zeal exceeds all belief–Whilst the Commercial plunder of the South stimulates the rapacious Trader. In this state of things the Patriot voice is raised in vain for such changes and securities as Reason and Experience prove to be necessary against the encroachments of power upon the indispensable rights of human nature. Upon due consideration of the Constitution under which we now Act, some of us were clearly of opinion that the 13th article of the Confederation precluded us from giving an opinion concerning a plan subversive of the present system and eventually forming a New Confederacy of Nine instead of 13 States. The contrary doctrine was asserted with great violence in expectation of the strong majority with which they might send it forward under terms of much approbation. Having procured an opinion that Congress was qualified to consider, to amend, to approve or disapprove–the next game was to determine that tho a right to amend existed, it would be highly inexpedient to exercise that right; but merely to transmit it with respectful marks of approbation. In this state of things I availed myself of the Right to amend, & moved the Amendments copy of which I send herewith & called the ayes & nays to fix them on the journal. This greatly alarmed the Majority & vexed them extremely–for the plan is, to push the business on with great dispatch, & with as little opposition as possible: that it may be adopted before it has stood the test of Reflection & due examination. They found it most eligible at last to transmit it merely, without approving or disapproving; provided nothing but the transmission should appear on the Journal. This compromise was settled and they took the opportunity of inserting the word Unanimously, which applied only to simple transmission, hoping to have it mistaken for an Unanimous approbation of the thing. It states that Congress having Received the Constitution unanimously transmit it &c. It is certain that no Approbation was given. This constitution has a great many excellent Regulations in it and if it could be reasonably amended would be a fine System. As it is, I think ’tis past doubt, that if it should be established, either a tyranny will result from it, or it will be prevented by a Civil war. I am clearly of opinion with you that it should be sent back with amendments Reasonable and Assent to it with held until such amendments are admitted. You are well acquainted with Thos. Stone & others of influence in Maryland–I think it will be a great point to get Maryld. & Virginia to join in the plan of Amendments & return it with them. If you are in correspondence with our Chancelor Pendelton it will be of much use to furnish him with the objections, and if he approves our plan, his opinion will have great weight with our Convention and I am told that his relation Judge Pendleton of South Carolina has decided weight in the State & that he is sensible & independent. How important will it be then to procure his union with our plan, which might probably be the case, if our Chancelor was to write largely and pressingly to him on the subject; that if possible it may be amended there also. It is certainly the most rash and violent proceeding in the world to cram thus suddenly into Men a business of such infinite Moment to the happiness of Millions.
Suppose when the Assembly recommended a Convention to consider this new Constitution they were to use some words like these–It is earnestly recommended to the good people of Virginia to send their most wise & honest Men to this Convention that it may undergo the most intense consideration before a plan shall be without amendments adopted that admits of abuses being practised by which the best interests of this Country may be injured and Civil Liberty greatly endanger’d. This might perhaps give a decided Tone to the business.
Source: Jensen, Merrill, et al, editors. Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976. Volume VII, pages 59-67.